Washam's law: Birth of a salesman

November 12, 2010 

Richard Dale Washam never learned to lose gracefully. He’s not much better at winning.

He’s the Pierce County assessor-treasurer, a rookie at 72, elected to public office in 2008 after a string of election defeats dating to 1972.

He’s the gadfly in charge, the rebel turned boss, the back-seat driver handed the keys and a full tank. His office is a well of awkward silence, apart from the metallic whine of a paper shredder that runs at length. Employees don’t know what he shreds. He rarely speaks to anyone but a few favored assistants.

For decades, during his many runs for public office, he has garbed himself in a mantle of virtue, often embroidered with religious conviction.

“I believe in truth and justice,” he says.

Along the way, he has denounced opponents and critics on moral grounds. He’s accused them of lies, self-promotion, mismanagement, corruption and criminal acts.

Public records and dozens of interviews reveal Washam has attacked others for his own sins.

Over the years, in voter pamphlets and public statements, he has inflated his résumé, exaggerating his academic credentials and claiming professional experience he does not have. He touts his achievements as a self-taught lawyer, but he has overstated his successes and minimized his defeats.

“Truth is important to me,” he says on his website – but he has been known to stretch it.

Washam declined repeated offers by The News Tribune to be interviewed for this story.

POINT OF ORDER

Washam argues that his predecessor, Ken Madsen, flouted state law by skipping physical inspections of thousands of county properties and relying on statistical methods to revalue them. It’s true; Madsen admits it.

Washam tried to recall Madsen on that basis in 2005, after Madsen defeated him in the 2004 election. A judge threw out the recall petition, finding Madsen had a “legally cognizable justification” for his methods.

Since taking office in 2009, Washam has resurrected the argument, repeatedly demanding a criminal investigation of what he describes as forgery and falsification of county property records. To date, county and state law enforcement agencies have refused Washam’s entreaties. He says they’re all wrong.

In 23 months of service, Washam’s actions have spawned multiple investigations into his treatment of employees and multiple findings of misconduct.

The findings state he has abused his power, wasted government resources, retaliated against employees who disagreed with him, and violated county policy by hindering the investigations.

Total legal bills to date: $102,764, including fees to the attorney assigned to defend Washam against the complaints. The figure comes from Joe Carrillo, Pierce County’s labor relations manager.

So far, the findings have bred two damage claims from employees seeking a collective total of almost $2 million. Washam also faces a recall petition that seeks to oust him from office.

He calls the investigations and findings “bogus,” and contends they come from ax-grinding employees egged on by their union. He questions the county’s authority to investigate him. He says the damage claims are meritless.

ROVING KNIGHT

The findings float in Washam’s wake. He scoffs. This is the price of doing the right thing: harassment.

He didn’t always see it that way. During his failed attempts to win public office, he cited lawsuits and complaints by public employees as evidence of lack of leadership – a condition he vowed to change.

“I’d like to think I’d be an outstanding administrator,” he said in 2004, when he was running for assessor-treasurer. “The door to my office will always be open.”

Now that Washam is in charge, those who work for him say the door to his office is always closed.

He has a motto: “Our office works for you, the taxpayer.”

It’s the banner on his official correspondence and the slogan on his business cards. It’s the first line below his name on his official county website, his electro-pulpit.

To his admirers, Washam is a roving knight, smiting the giants of Pierce County’s corrupt political machinery and defying the puppet media. A News Tribune reader’s online comment, posted Aug. 24, shouted support for the assessor-treasurer.

“The good news is judging by the TNT biased reporting and union crying he must be doing an OUTSTANDING job – thanks Dale!!!” the reader wrote.

To those who deal with Washam personally, he’s something else: the customer banned from a grocery store for haranguing clerks about their item-stacking; the condo tenant who refused to pay a $13 garbage bill and argued the point all the way to the state Court of Appeals; the red-faced boss who wags his finger and proclaims his Christian virtue; the cad who stepped out on his wife for more than a decade and spurned the woman he promised to marry.

BEGINNINGS

He was born June 30, 1938, the oldest of eight siblings: six brothers, two sisters. His childhood in Missouri was unhappy by his own account. The parents abandoned the children, who scattered to foster homes. Washam has spoken of living in a boxcar as a boy and eating an onion for dinner.

At some point in adolescence, he moved to Western Washington. In February 1956, at 17, he married his high-school sweetheart, 17-year-old Dorothy Michaels, in Kitsap County. Their first child, Elizabeth, arrived shortly. Three sons – Mark, Matthew and Christopher – would follow.

Four days after his marriage, Washam joined the Air Force. Military records obtained by The News Tribune show he served from 1956 to 1960 at George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., and received an honorable discharge. His rank: airman first class.

He described his military duties in a job application that appears in early court records: “Managed section of commissary,” Washam wrote.

EARLY WORK

In past News Tribune interviews, Washam said he obtained his GED in the military, and a high school diploma about the same time. He said he worked at a Tradewell grocery store and rose from boxboy to assistant manager.

From 1963 to 1970, Washam worked at Overall Cleaning and Supply in Seattle, according to his statements in court records. He bought property in 1967 and built a house near Puyallup.

In winter 1969, he enrolled at Fort Steilacoom Community College – a branch campus of Pierce College. In spring 1970, he received an associate’s degree in arts and sciences, according to Pierce College records.

Many years later, during his numerous campaigns for public office, Washam wrote voter-pamphlet biographies, mailed to all registered Pierce County voters. He regularly referred to his degree as a “business major.”

He started and ran his own dry-cleaning business in the Lakewood area from 1970 to 1972. The business didn’t last; in the latter half of 1972, Washam scrambled for work. His statements in court records, including federal tax forms, say he sold trailers, tires and recreational vehicles for three different businesses.

He also dabbled in politics, taking a run at a seat in the state House. He lost in a crowded primary.

Around the same time, he started building a house on his vacant property next door. He meant to move in and sell his old place.

On Nov. 24, 1972, one day after Thanksgiving, he got sued for the first time. He was 34.

THE CONTRACTOR

The plaintiff was a contractor, Jerome J. Abel, hired to build Washam’s new house.

Abel had worked the project for almost three months. Records from his lawsuit say Washam was picky; he wanted changes and extras. He complained about Abel’s work. The drain field was too high. The chimney flue liner was the wrong size.

Abel arrived at the work site one morning to find his building materials gone, stowed next door by Washam’s garage. Abel confronted Washam, who reportedly said, “You’re finished, you’re through, get off the job.”

Abel was more than halfway through the job. He demanded payment for the work he’d done and the materials he’d supplied: $17,070, plus interest.

Washam fought. He lost. Court records described him as “quick-tempered.” He burned through four attorneys. One was J. Kelley Arnold, who later served as a federal judge at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma. Arnold withdrew from Washam’s defense for undisclosed personal reasons.

The court ordered Washam to pay $9,748.24 – most of the money went to Abel, the rest to attorney fees.

The defeat stung. Washam was far from rich, a father of four children – but he came out even. He’d finished the new house and moved in, then sold his old place next door.

Just as the lawsuit ended, fortune smiled: Washam landed a job selling pharmaceuticals.

BIRTH OF A SALESMAN

The company was Diamond Laboratories Inc., an Iowa-based subsidiary of Syntex Agribusiness Inc., a subsidiary of Syntex Inc.

Diamond’s flagship product was DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), a versatile industrial solvent: at high concentrations, it stripped paint. In lower concentrations, it was a topical liniment for horses, sold by veterinarians – Diamond’s biggest customers.

The stuff penetrated skin, gave you garlic breath, and (some said) relieved arthritis. DMSO gained underground wonder-drug status in the early 1960s but never received a full medical blessing from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Reported side effects included nausea, headache and skin rash.

Washam’s official job title was field sales representative, which meant a lot of driving around and pitching product at veterinary offices in Washington’s rural outskirts. From the beginning, he was a natural.

“Out of the rain of Washington has come one of the most professional salesmen I have ever known. I can only say how extremely proud I am to have you on my team.”

– Letter to Washam from district manager Peter Brown, April 16, 1975

The days and miles were long. He was often away from home, but he had an expense account and drove a company car, replaced every year.

He took over a lousy district and turned it into a moneymaker. His bosses loved him. Within six months of hiring him, they gave him a raise way ahead of schedule, court records say.

His territory included Spokane, 300 miles east. One Saturday in April 1975, he spent the evening at the Sheraton Hotel downtown and met a dark-haired, big-eyed woman. Her name was Ramona Pinto. They danced.

“He was a great dancer,” Pinto recalled.

The next day, he called her for a date.

The relationship lasted 12 years, Pinto said. They took vacations together. They talked marriage.

Washam told her he was divorced. He wasn’t. He was still married to Dorothy, his high-school sweetheart, the mother of his four children. Pinto wouldn’t learn the truth for more than a decade.

She noticed her boyfriend had quirks. He was a neat freak, wouldn’t eat the sandwiches she made unless she wrapped them. On drives, he constantly changed routes, as if he feared being followed.

In 1976, he had two addresses: one in Spokane, one in Pierce County. The Pierce County address was the one he used when he took another run at the Legislature. Again, he lost in the primary, but he pulled a few thousand votes, state records show.

While juggling politics and romance, Washam fattened his record of success at Diamond. He regularly ranked among the top sellers in his district. Repeated accolades followed, with minor miscues. He ran up unauthorized expenses on the company dime – including motel rooms, meals and other charges in Spokane.

“I have repeatedly instructed you, both through oral and written communications, that this practice should stop. If this violation of company policy occurs again, it will result in your termination from Diamond Laboratories Inc.”

– Written warning to Washam from district manager Peter Brown, Oct. 26, 1977

He hit another bump in 1979 when his neighbor sued him over a fence.

SUED AGAIN

Robert Kirkwood had lived next door for seven years. He’d bought Washam’s old house. Washam had moved into the new place he’d built – the one that got him sued before.

An old fence split the side yards between the two lots. At its nearest, the fence stood 8 feet from the side of Kirkwood’s house.

It didn’t match the legal property line. County survey maps showed a slice of Washam’s lot cutting into Kirkwood’s side yard.

They had talked that point through during the sale, walking the lot and pacing the distance, court records say. Together, they agreed Kirkwood was buying the slice: the fence would become the new property line.

Kirkwood and his wife Aline lived in the house for the next seven years, paid property taxes and stuck to their side of the fence – until Washam knocked it down and started building a new one.

The old fence stood 8 feet from Kirkwood’s house. The new one cut the margin to 7 inches.

Kirkwood protested. Washam said he’d had a new survey done. Kirkwood said that wasn’t the agreement. Washam kept building.

Kirkwood sued. Washam lost. He had to move the fence back.

The squabble lasted three years, but Washam had bigger problems. In 1980, he picked a fight with his employer and got himself fired.

ASH AND ACRIMONY

Diamond Laboratories recorded a sales boom in spring 1980, after the CBS program “60 Minutes” ran a news segment on DMSO and its reputed soothing properties.

Washam concocted a promotional gimmick tying sales to souvenir freebies: samples of volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens. His bosses cheered. One grateful supervisor offered a sweetener: a $500 bonus for the idea.

Higher-ups shot it down – such payments violated company policy and the terms of Washam’s signed employment agreement. Ideas were part of a salesman’s standard job description, not a vehicle for extra pay.

Washam wasn’t satisfied. He wanted the money. He jousted with corporate. He argued through the summer. He cited legal advice. He insisted the verbal promise should trump company policy.

Corporate caved and sent a check, but it was the beginning of the end. The money came with strings. To claim it, Washam had to sign an agreement saying promotional ideas were part of his normal duties.

He wouldn’t sign, court records say.

“Dale would not sign anything without seeing his attorney again. Attitude bad, does not trust company or commitments. MAN SHOULD BE TERMINATED IF THERE IS ANY LEGAL WAY POSSIBLE AS RAPIDLY AS POSSIBLE. ABSOLUTELY NO POTENTIAL DEVELOPMENT ANTICIPATED.”

– Performance review of Washam by Paul Gladfelder, Oct. 8, 1980

Washam demanded different wording in the agreement letter, citing legal advice.

Vice President Warren Dobbertin replied, sending the requested revisions and a brief memo.

“Let us set aside some time to discuss the matter at the upcoming National Sales Meeting. I look forward to seeing you there.”

– Memo from Dobbertin to Washam, Oct. 15, 1980

The sales meeting was a fancy affair in New York, held Friday through Sunday, Oct. 24-26, 1980. Attendance was mandatory for all field representatives.

Dobbertin intended to speak to Washam at the meeting, to clarify matters once and for all.

Washam didn’t show. He got permission to miss the first day of the meeting, (the Friday) claiming legal obligations at home. Then he called Dobbertin’s office and left a message:

“...(Washam) awoke this morning with a stomach ache – went to the doctor who told him he has a bleeding ulcer – doctor recommended that he should not make the trip because of the stress, also because of the stressful meetings he would be involved with. He will ask the doctor to send us a statement to that effect.”

– Notes of phone message from Washam, Oct. 23, 1980

The following Monday, Washam called Dobbertin again to explain his medical issues. Dobbertin told Washam to see a doctor later that week for a physical examination at company expense.

It was mandatory. It was in his contract.

Washam wouldn’t do it.

Accounts in court records say he went to the appointment but wouldn’t sign the required forms. He refused to take the examination unless the doctor gave him a copy of the results.

The doctor said he couldn’t do that. The results belonged to the company.

Washam left. Two weeks later, he was fired.

“I have concluded that your employment with the Company must be terminated.”

– Letter from Dobbertin to Washam, Nov. 12, 1980

Six days later, he sent his bosses a doctor’s note.

The doctor said he’d treated Washam for ulcer-related problems in 1974 and in 1977. The patient had returned from time to time for flare-ups and follow-up treatment – but not recently.

“However, to my knowledge he has had no recent history of gastrointestinal bleeding.

Very truly yours,

R.F. Baronnian, M.D.”

Nov. 18, 1980

Washam’s own doctor hadn’t seen him. There was nothing to prove his claim of illness, apart from his word.

He was 42. Public records, including his own campaign disclosure filings, suggest he didn’t obtain another salaried job until his election as assessor-treasurer in 2008, nearly three decades later.

Ramona Pinto remembers Washam getting fired. She doesn’t remember him being sick.

“The story behind Dale’s termination was that he simply didn’t want to go,” she said. “He wanted to spend time with me. He had rented a condo here in Spokane at the time. He used the excuse that he had ulcers. He did have them but not at that time and he was not ill.”

Years later, in self-penned campaign brochures and voter-pamphlet statements, Washam regularly referred to his work history:

 •  “Business administrator for two major corporations” (1994 voters’ pamphlet.)

 •  “Numerous years corporate management” (1998 voters’ pamphlet)

 •  “Management position world-wide corporation ... Former corporate administrator” (2008 voters’ pamphlet)

Washam had worked at a grocery store and an overall-cleaning company. He’d sold tires, trailers and RVs, and started a dry-cleaning business that survived less than two years.

Diamond Laboratories was a full-blown corporation, with offices throughout the nation. Washam worked six years there, but he was never an administrator or a manager.

“No, he was not,” said Paul Gladfelder, one of Washam’s supervisors at Diamond. “He was just a salesman.”

LAWSUIT

After his firing, court records say, Washam asked his ex-bosses a favor: He didn’t want future employers to hear he’d been fired. He wanted to say he resigned “for mutual convenience.”

If the company was willing – and if he could get about $2,375 in severance pay – Washam would abandon the discrimination complaint that he was contemplating.

Corporate answered with a letter and the severance check. Again, the money came with strings. Diamond would agree to say Washam resigned, and he could cash the severance check – if he signed a statement agreeing to dismiss or withdraw any future complaints against Diamond.

Washam wouldn’t sign.

The following spring, April 1981, Washam filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission. He claimed his bosses at Diamond discriminated against him because of his age (42) and his disability (ulcers).

A commission investigation found no evidence to support either claim.

A year later, in November 1982, Washam sued Diamond for wrongful termination. He demanded money: losses tied to his $34,000 salary, and at minimum, the remaining severance pay he felt he was owed.

The lawsuit would last six years, climbing up to the state Court of Appeals and back.

ON HIS OWN

For the first time, Washam represented himself, dropping the attorney he’d hired initially. He would act as his own lawyer (pro se) many more times in the decades to come.

The approach offered certain advantages: he could craft his arguments as he wished; plus, no legal fees. He crammed for hundreds of hours in the county law library.

He argued he’d been fired for refusing to waive his right to his medical records. He argued he’d been fired for missing a meeting he couldn’t attend.

The case crawled through civil court, waiting for a date. Meanwhile, Washam started a new fight that led to an appearance in The News Tribune. He was spotted waving a sign by the side of the road in Puyallup.

PICKETING

A photo and a story ran on Feb. 23, 1983, on Page D15. Washam was picketing a car lot. He wore a plaid blazer. His sign was black and yellow:

UNHAPPY CUSTOMER

OF LARSON MOTORS

I WANT MY MONEY BACK.

HONK! IF YOU SUPPORT ME

DAY 6 HERE

There was no money to give back. Washam wasn’t overbilled. He hadn’t paid the dealership anything. He admitted as much to the reporter who interviewed him.

He’d brought his RV in for repairs after a theft attempt. It was a standard insurance job. The dealership fixed the damage. The insurance paid the entire bill.

Washam’s beef was the cost of labor. He thought it was too high, and said he was entitled to the difference: $540. The lot owner, Robert Larson, said he’d offered Washam $250 to fold his sign and go away. Washam had refused.

The reporter quoted Washam.

“Through the time he has been away from his pharmaceutical-supply sales job, Washam said, ‘I’ve lost much more than this. But now it’s the principle of the thing.’”

– The News Tribune, Feb. 23, 1983

DISMISSED

Washam wasn’t spending time away from his job. He’d been fired more than two years earlier, and he was suing Diamond.

His lawsuit survived early challenges – barely. Opposing lawyers cut his discrimination argument to pieces.

Washam said he was fired because he was too old, but 31 of Diamond’s 42 salesmen were his age or older.

He said he was fired for being sick, but he’d never taken the physical examination to prove it.

He said he was fired for asserting his rights to his medical records, but he’d signed the contract that authorized a physical examination.

In 1985, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Rosanne Buckner sided with Diamond, and ordered the case dismissed. Washam moved for reconsideration: to keep his suit alive, he changed his argument.

He stopped claiming discrimination. Instead, he said he was a whistleblower, fired for speaking out against illegal DMSO sales.

“I believe I have found a conspiracy to have me terminated,” Washam wrote. He cited the 1980 “MAN SHOULD BE TERMINATED” memo written by his ex-supervisor.

Diamond’s lawyers countered: Washam had never mentioned the whistleblower allegations in earlier filings. Company leaders didn’t recall him speaking out about DMSO.

Washam’s reputed misgivings hadn’t affected his performance, the lawyers added. He’d ranked among the top DMSO sellers in his district, year after year.

Again, Buckner dismissed Washam’s claim. He was four years late. He couldn’t change his argument midstream.

“You can’t pick and choose without any detriment to yourself as to your different claims of recovery. Okay? You can’t all of a sudden say, ‘Now I think it is this because you have ruled against me on something else.’”

– Buckner to Washam in court, May 16, 1986

The judge gave Diamond a summary judgment, dismissing the case. Diamond followed up with a claim for $27,000 in attorney fees, calling Washam’s entire case frivolous. Washam fought and lost. Buckner ordered him to pay $5,000.

Washam wouldn’t give in. He sought relief from the state Court of Appeals, accusing Buckner of misconduct. The court dismissed his appeal.

He filed a complaint against Buckner with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. It went nowhere.

A few years later, Washam told a News Tribune reporter he’d won a settlement in the case, but could not discuss it. There is no sign of such an agreement in court records. The last page of the court file is the satisfaction of the $5,000 judgment.

For six years, Washam had fought Diamond, arguing on his own, writing his own briefs, handling his own discovery. He’d lost at every significant step.

He’d also lost his girlfriend.

In 1987, Ramona Pinto filed a petition in Spokane County, accusing Washam of domestic abuse and seeking a temporary order of protection.

BREAKUP

Three times over their 12 years together, they’d planned marriage, Pinto said. She bought a dress and booked a reception hall. Three times, the plans fell through.

She and Washam had gone to couples counseling. Washam stormed out of the session because he didn’t like the questions, Pinto said.

Pinto knew he’d been married, knew he had children, mostly grown. He’d always said he was divorced.

Then Pinto found letters. Washam typically destroyed documents, but not these. They came from Dorothy, his wife.

Pinto realized the past 12 years had been a lie.

Washam tried to show her divorce papers: a joint petition for dissolution filed a year earlier in Snohomish County. Dorothy had signed it, as had Dale Washam.

“We have been separated since 1981,” a notation said.

By the time Pinto saw them, the papers had no force; by court rule, the decree of dissolution had expired, because the parties never followed through with it.

Pinto no longer cared about the details. She and Washam had been fighting for months. Her harassment petition, filed in July 1987, described her lover’s conduct.

“Approx Sept 86 – Pushed me into towel bar, went to emergency room for right shoulder injury

Approx April 18, 87 – Slapped me, threatened physical violence

Approx May 2, 87 – Severely bruised left knee, threatened to kill me, and picked up scissors and held against me

Approx June 6, 87 – Threatened physical harm

July 5, 87 – Bruised right arm, threatened physical violence with long pin, locked me out of house

Constant and repeated verbal abuse and physical threats”

– Excerpt of protection order petition, July 6, 1987

Washam fought the petition. He denied accusations of domestic violence. He admitted the towel bar incident and the emergency room visit. He said he was trying to stop Pinto from committing suicide. He said she was despondent because he was leaving her.

>“Respondent told petitioner he was leaving and moving back to Seattle. Petitioner became very unhappy, went to the cupboard and got a handful of pills...”

- Washam’s affidavit, Aug. 3, 1987

He said he stuck his finger down Pinto’s throat to dig out the pills. He denied the other accusations of violence and threats. He said Pinto admitted she’d filed the harassment petition to hurt him.

The protection order was modified. Washam and Pinto were ordered to stay away from each other. They did. Pinto eventually married a man who helped her in the court case. He died a month ago.

Looking back, Pinto said the relationship with Washam was complicated.

“He should not be a person in any kind of power,” she said. “But that’s what he always wanted.”

WINS AND LOSSES

Washam popped into print again in 1988 when he joined a group of protesters at the Pierce County Courthouse. The crowd complained about high-handed judges giving short shrift to people who chose to represent themselves in court.

Washam said he’d seen the bias first-hand. He told The News Tribune he’d represented himself in 11 cases, and won them all.

He made similar claims during a December 1989 interview with a News Tribune columnist, saying he’d represented himself in a dozen cases over 11 years in Superior Court, District Court and Municipal Court: twice as a plaintiff, 10 times as a defendant. Washam claimed he’d won every time.

“I didn’t lose,” he said.

How he reached his tally and how he defined losing was unclear – but official records don’t match his claim.

His reckoning at the time referred to a span stretching from 1978 to 1989. The News Tribune surveyed state court records from that period, including a database maintained by the state courts administrator that lists cases in state courts, superior courts, district courts and municipal courts, dating to 1975. The records show eight cases involving Washam: four as defendant, two as plaintiff, one as an appellant. He was a petitioner in the eighth case: his divorce filing, dismissed for lack of response.

The scorecard: one win, five losses, one split.

The argument in his 1979 property-line dispute ended with Washam moving his fence back to where it had been before the lawsuit began.

He’d beaten a landlord in an argument over the wording of a rental agreement. Another landlord had beaten him in an eviction dispute: Washam had refused to leave until ordered by a sheriff’s deputy.

The protection-order petition filed by his ex-girlfriend ended as a split - a modified, mutual restraining order.

The losses came from his big case: the wrongful-termination lawsuit against his old employer that consumed him for much of the decade. He’d lost in Superior Court, appealed the verdict and lost, sought a ruling of misconduct against the judge and lost.

The defeats didn’t deter him. Washam had a new dragon to slay: politics.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486

sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

NEXT: The recall king

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